BOSTON — Division titles don’t mean anything and, just in case that wasn’t obvious already, the NBA eliminated any lingering incentive to capture a division crown in September when it voted to seed conference playoffs by overall record.
So calling Friday’s matchup between the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors some sort of Atlantic Division showdown seemed foolish. Quizzed about playing the two-time defending division champs Thursday, Celtics coach Brad Stevens downplayed that chatter and noted his team’s focus was simply on improving at this stage of the season.
But Stevens offered a pointed message to his squad after a 113-103 loss to the Raptors on Friday at TD Garden.
“It’s Game 2. We’re not as good as these guys right now. I think that was pretty evident and clear for everyone to see, and so we’ll see if we can improve,” said Stevens.
Friday’s game was an eyesore, regardless of which team you support. The Celtics and Raptors combined for 61 fouls and 76 free throws in a whistle-heavy game that took two hours and 29 minutes. The Celtics spent the night frustrated by the calls going against them, but were still on top early in the third quarter before a brief lapse allowed the Raptors to open up a 14-point lead. A Terrence Ross fourth-quarter explosion pushed that lead as high as 19 before Boston chipped away late.
Asked about some frustrated body language the Celtics displayed in the second half, guard Isaiah Thomas didn’t disagree with the suggestion.
“I haven’t seen it this year. That was the first time,” Thomas said of a team that had endured little adversity during a 6-1 preseason and then raced away from the Philadelphia 76ers on opening night on Wednesday. “Coach said it a few times in the huddle, too. And we can’t have that. That’s signs of an immature team, a young team. We’ve got to be bigger than that. At all times we’ve just got to be even-keeled. Whether it’s good or bad we can’t get too high or too low.”
Was this a bit of a litmus test for a team that really hadn’t seen legitimate competition to this point?
“You could say that,” said Thomas. “It’s still early. They’re a hell of a team. You’ve got to tip your hat off to them. They came in, they handled their business. But at the same time, they’ve definitely, the last few years, been a pretty good team, and a team that you look forward to playing against, and a team that plays the right way. They’ve got a lot of unselfish guys and a lot of talented guys. You’ve got to learn from your mistakes that we had tonight and build on it.”
The referees certainly called Friday’s game tight at times, but the Celtics didn’t help their cause with ill-timed fouls when the Raptors were in the bonus. Toronto shot 32.5 percent in the first half and Boston was fortunate to be tied at 54 at intermission.
“It’s just for us to get better, clean up on our mistakes,” said Amir Johnson, who put up 11 points and eight rebounds in 19 minutes while playing his former squad for the first time. “Toronto is a team that, for some reason, we used to just turn up in the third quarter and, for us, we have to get every quarter. … Tonight is just a test for us to get better as a team.”
• How does a team know when it’s just not its night? When the two most memorable moments for Boston were (1) A one-footed, falling-out-of-bounds 3-pointer made by Marcus Smart and (2) New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman chugging a beer and then crushing the can in his hand. The rest of the night — the 17 turnovers, the 53-38 differential on the glass, and the 11 3-pointers allowed — is something the team would prefer to forget, especially with the San Antonio Spurs set to visit on Sunday.
• Ross, the eighth pick in the 2012 draft who has started 123 games the past two seasons, seems just fine in a reserve role this season. He scored 13 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter while connecting on six of seven attempts in the frame. Said Ross: “Coming off the bench kinda helps me because you see what the team needs to work on. … I actually like it better.” Said Thomas: “He was a difference-maker in the fourth quarter.”
• Celtics rookie first-round pick R.J. Hunter, back after missing the opener due to food poisoning, was active for Friday’s game against the Raptors. Hunter and fellow first-round pick Terry Rozier were the only two players who didn’t see the floor for a Boston team that went 11 deep and utilized all five pure bigs on the roster.
• The Celtics formally triggered the third-year options for Smart and Young, and the fourth-year option for Kelly Olynyk. These were expected moves to ensure those players are back at low-cost rookie money for future seasons.